When I was growing up, the adults in my world seemed pretty unanimous in thinking that defacing a dollar bill in any way was against the law. Later, I started noticing more and more writing on bills, and I eventually concluded that the illegality of defacing currency must involve counterfeiting. “Call Brandy for a good time” or “Cheeseheads Rule!” clearly are not attempts to trick anyone about the value of the bill upon which they are written. I assumed that those tut-tutting adults were just generalizing a specific prohibition from confusion. So, I read the following article on McClatchyDC about what Americans may do with their dollar bills with much interest: “Ben & Jerry’s co-founder tempts Secret Service by stamping messages on money.”
As I read the story, I thought about how such controversies should be the meat and potatoes of politics. For both sides (the Secret Service and StampStampede.org) have reasonable positions that are grounded in our law and traditions, though each proceeds from and focuses on a particular perspective and interest. Issues and disagreements like this are intrinsic to human society. Unfortunately, they seem so petty to us latter day Americans because our political arguments have shifted toward fundamental principles. In the Kulturkampfalter, our society debates its very understanding of the Good; the dominant American beliefs about morality and human nature are “to be decided.” This is a sign of profound national sickness. In a healthy society, Ben Cohen’s challenge to the Treasury would be front page news.